Binstead's Safari by Rachel Ingalls (Simon & Schuster: $15.95 cloth, $6.95 paper; 224 pages)
Though Stan and Millie Binstead aren't the first couple to be transformed by exposure to the green hills of Africa and surely won't be the last, Ingalls' spare and elegant novel owes practically nothing to its predecessors. For one thing, the Binsteads aren't sportsmen. Stan is an anthropologist, with a grant to do some firsthand research on the practice and development of cult worship among the more isolated African tribes.
Though Millie has been skillfully playing the role of model faculty wife, self-effacing and properly dowdy, Stan is not nearly as appreciative as he might be. Despite his wintry personality and unremarkable looks, he's managed a considerable amount of philandering both on and off his New England campus.
Until she inherits a small legacy from her Great-Aunt Edna, Millie has been Patient Griselde, waiting at home till Stan returned from his various subsidized junkets. Suddenly finding herself able to pay her own way to London and on to Africa, Millie decides impulsively to go along. Stan is less than enthusiastic, but under the circumstances, there's nothing he can do to stop her except remind her that he'll have no time for her, but Millie is used to that and unfazed. Subconsciously, she has decided the trip will be a turning point in the marriage.
Once in London, Millie makes the most of her free time, visiting the museums, going alone to concerts, ballet and theater, and somewhat to her surprise, enjoying herself hugely. Glimpsing herself in a shop window, she realizes that she's let herself look "like somebody's mother," and within a couple of hours, not only acquires a new hair style and wardrobe but the confidence and verve to go with them.
By the time they're flying over Africa, Millie is well on her way to being another person altogether, her natural charm and wit resurfacing after years of repression. Stan is amazed at the response she evokes; not only admiring glances from everyone they meet but respect. Millie has done her homework thoroughly and is determined to derive the most from the trip. Her questions are trenchant; her manner endearing.
While Stan fusses with details, Millie makes friends. One day, while Stan is busying himself with his endless arrangements, Millie explores the dusty African city and encounters a Canadian hunter named Harry Lewis, who contrives to meet her again the next day while she's browsing among the arts and crafts stalls. The attraction between them is instant and total: "The sound of his voice came to her hardly as part of the exterior world, but as though inspired within herself, like the beat of a second heart." What happens next is indicated by a discreet typographical design in no way compromising the mystery and suspense of the ensuing events.
The following day Stan and Millie leave on the first leg of their safari. In addition to their guides, their party includes a French woman photographer, a government employee; a Dutch woman and a Japanese man who seem to be mere tourists. Though they see some magnificent animals, the real adventure is vicarious; the story of a horrendous accident that had happened to another party a few days earlier. No one is impervious to the story; each character is revealed by refraction.
Vaguely uneasy ever since he'd landed in Africa, Stan Binstead is overcome with a nameless dread so intense that it makes him physically ill. He'd suffered from a chronic sense of guilt following his brother's death in Vietnam, and his most recent and sordid extramarital affair in London hasn't contributed to his peace of mind. But this feeling is more acute and disturbing than anything he'd known before. While Millie is blooming with a marvelous vitality, enchanting everyone she encounters, Stan is all but incapacitated. Suddenly their roles seem reversed--he's the nonentity; she's the star. The journey continues with the Binsteads accorded full VIP treatment--introductions, parties, extended stays with an assortment of old Africa hands, each scene enlarging our knowledge of the personalities.
The tone of the novel deepens into a psychological study of these two people and the subtle and complex ways in which the exotic environment works upon each of them. Though the focus is kept firmly upon Millie and Stan, other central figures reflect different aspects of the African experience. In the course of the narrative, we meet a cross-section of colonials and local inhabitants, each of whom contributes to the composite national portrait without ever losing his or her essential individuality. Even as the mood darkens, Ingalls' style maintains the wry grace of a sophisticated romance, a control guaranteeing that the denouement will not only be inevitable but astonishing.